Mal de debarquement syndrome is a disorder that causes a person to feel like they’re moving when they’re not. Sometimes triggered by exposure to passive motion, like sea travel, it can be difficult to treat.

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Whether riding in a car or traveling on a train or boat, you encounter passive motion on a daily basis. For some people, the sensation of movement may continue after disembarking.

It can be normal for this feeling of motion to continue for a few seconds or up to 3 days after exposure. However, when the rocking or swaying continues for months or years, it may be due to a condition called mal de debarquement syndrome (MdDS).

MdDS syndrome is a rare disorder affecting the vestibular system that controls your sense of balance. It is sometimes referred to as “land sickness” when it occurs only for shorter periods of time.

People with MdDS may feel like they are in motion when they’re not. It usually occurs after a person has been on a boat, plane, or an environment where they were exposed to passive motion, for example, a water bed or exercise equipment.

The persistent feeling of rocking and self-vertigo with MdDS can last for months or years after the event that triggered it. People who have the syndrome say they feel as if they are walking on a boat or rocking and swaying when they are sitting still.

It’s also possible to develop “mixed” MdDS, also known as “spontaneous” MdDS. This form doesn’t have an initial triggering event. Researchers think it may be related to migraine disease.

The main symptom of MdDS is a continued feeling of motion, particularly rocking. The feeling is not a spinning dizziness but unsteadiness. It’s important to note that these symptoms happen even if a person’s head is not moving, which may help separate it from other similar disorders.

Other symptoms may include:

  • feelings of imbalance
  • fatigue
  • confusion and brain fog
  • changes in mood

Symptoms may be more noticeable when a person is sitting or lying still. They may also be triggered by flashing lights, fast motions, and busy visual environments, like grocery store aisles.

Symptoms may temporarily get better when you experience passive motion again, for example when riding in a car.

There are no clinical markers that can help diagnose MdDS. Instead, receiving this diagnosis is done by excluding other possible vestibular disorders and conditions.

Tests may include:

There is no treatment that makes MdDS go away for all people. Some people may get better with time. Other people may need several different types of treatments to help with symptoms.

Treatments may include:

The optokinetic rehabilitation protocol is another treatment that can be up to 70% effective. This treatment was developed by Dr. Mingjia Dai at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. It involves combining physical movement with visual stimuli. However, this treatment is only available at a few clinics worldwide.

There are no physical complications with MdDS. If the sensations of movement and imbalance continue for long periods of time, a person may develop anxiety and depression.

Up to 85% of people who have MdDS are women. The other primary risk factor is age. Of the women who seek treatment for MdDS, the average age of onset is somewhere in the perimenopause range (middle age).

Your chance may also be higher if you have a history of migraine.

The outlook for MdDS is individual. Some people may see their symptoms improve over time. Others may continue to experience symptoms and need a variety of treatments for months or years.

In one 2018 clinical review, researchers explain that the likelihood of symptoms getting better – with or without treatment – decreases after the first month and is unlikely after a year.

Does the Epley maneuver help with MdDS?

No. The Epley maneuver is a treatment for another type of vertigo called benign positional vertigo (BPV).

Are all doctors familiar with MdDS?

Not necessarily. Getting help can be tricky, and people with MdDS may see up to a dozen doctors before diagnosis.

How long must a person be exposed to a trigger to develop MdDS?

It depends. Most people who develop MdDS have had exposure to motion for several days, for example, after a cruise.

Make an appointment with your doctor if you are experiencing rocking vertigo, imbalance, or unsteadiness. The severity and duration of your MdDS symptoms may not be tied to the length of time you were initially exposed to motion. In fact, the trigger of your symptoms may not be a memorable initial event at all.

Getting a diagnosis can be difficult and may take seeing several doctors. However, appropriate treatment may reduce symptoms and improve your quality of life.